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Smith Trial in S.C. Aims at Less Sensation

By Elizabeth Levitan SpaidStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 1995



ATLANTA

SUSAN SMITH, the woman who put Union, S.C., in the world's spotlight last October, is again bringing attention to the textile town of 10,000.

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Reporters and television camera crews from as far away as Japan are descending to cover Ms. Smith's double murder trial, for which jury selection begins today.

The media invasion has led some to dub the trial "O.J. East." But, while observers acknowledge the Smith trial has reached some celebrity status, they say all similarities with the O.J. Simpson case end there.

Instead of the "carnival" atmosphere that exists in the Los Angeles courtroom, the Smith case "will have the dignity that a murder case has, the serious aspects, and the professionalism that we expect of our system," says Jack Swerling, a criminal defense attorney in Columbia, S.C. "It will be handled completely differently."

Smith's story captivated the country last October when she tearfully told how an armed carjacker had kidnapped her children and drove away with them into the night. She later confessed to strapping her two sons in her car and letting it roll into a lake.

Smith's lawyers, David Bruck and Judy Clarke, have tried to avoid a trial by asking prosecutor Tommy Pope to accept a plea bargain. They have asked that Smith be spared the death penalty in exchange for a life sentence of 30 years without parole.

But Mr. Pope has refused their offer. He has said he decided to seek the death penalty after considering the facts of the case and consulting with the family of David Smith, Smith's ex-husband. Both David Smith and his father have said publicly that they favor the death penalty for her.

During the trial, Pope will "paint Smith as a cold, calculating, selfish person who killed to gratify her own desires," says Eldon Wedlock, a law professor specializing in criminal and constitutional law at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Pope will try to show her motivation for killing was to get rid of her sons so she could marry Tom Findlay, the son of a wealthy textile mill executive, who ended his affair with Smith because he wasn't ready to be a father.

Smith's lawyers are likely to portray her as a woman who has been abused as a child and an adult, and that she was troubled and depressed, a state that led to mental illness. Smith has said she had sexual relations with her stepfather. "They will put forth a variety of symptomatologies that will make her crime understandable on the part of the jury" and make it unwilling to impose the death penalty, Mr. Wedlock says.

Most legal experts say a death sentence is unlikely because it would require the unanimous decision of all jurors. "The likelihood of one juror holding up the death sentence in my opinion seems fairly high," says Nancy Wolfe, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina College of Criminal Justice.

Wedlock believes a jury won't serve such a harsh punishment because it's too close to home. "The people in Union all know each other, so it's like sentencing someone you know or their family, and that becomes tougher," he says.

Another factor that may make it harder to convince a jury to hand down the death penalty is a book that David Smith is writing with two New York ghostwriters - "Beyond All Reason: My Life With Susan Smith," timed for release in August. Mr. Smith has said he doesn't want to profit from the death of his sons. "He is the witness that generates sympathy for the victims and a feeling of vengeance on the part of the jury," Wedlock says. "The sympathy factor is now damaged because he's profiteering."

Meanwhile, media access to the courtroom has been curtailed. Recently, the judge presiding over the case banned television coverage of the trial because of the chilling effect it might have on potential witnesses and jurors.

In the Smith case, "the judge will control the case; they'll be no showmanship" of lawyers and witnesses, he says.